Connecticut residents who were convicted of sex crimes before the state publicized the sex offender list want their names to be removed. They say it’s like serving a “second sentence” that they were not aware of when they were sentenced.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Jaden Edison to discuss his article, “’Just existing, not living’: CT residents retroactively added to sex offense registry seek reprieve,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

You can read his story here.

Episode Transcript

WSHU: Hello, Jaden. You use the example of Aaron Kearney, a 52-year-old Bridgeport resident, to illustrate the conundrum faced by some who are on the Connecticut sex offender registry. Can you tell us about his story?

JE: Yeah, for sure. So Aaron was someone who testified in front of the legislature earlier this year during testimony for a bill titled Senate Bill 1194, which would have ended the retroactive requirements for people added to the sex offender registry. And so I can get into a little bit more about that shortly about what that means. But basically, Aaron, back in 1997, pleaded guilty to third-degree sexual assault. But at the time of his conviction, in which he pleaded guilty, making that agreement with the state, the public sex offender registry, as we all know, didn’t exist.

It wasn’t until after the fact when he had already served his time when he was released, he found out months after that he was required by law to be added to this sex offender registry. And so I think what you’re seeing is that Aaron, and a number of people who were retroactively added to the registry are now at a place where they believe their rights to due process were violated, in terms of, we made an agreement with the state and there wasn’t an additional sentence, as they describe it, added to kind of what they had already agreed to and after they had already served time. And so that’s kind of what you’re seeing.

And back to the retroactive provision, what you see is, was that in 1998, when Connecticut enacted the public sex offender registry for people convicted of what the state described as sexually violent offenses in the 10 years prior to the law, as well. So dating back to 1988, also will require you to register. And so that’s kind of where this whole scenario, this whole story kind of stems from.

WSHU: So now, he’s been on the registry for 25 years. And how does he get off the registry?

JE: Yeah in Connecticut, it is hard. I mean, Connecticut, kind of limited exceptions. And so I think, you know, he’s in a scenario right now, where basically, he’s trying to seek legislative action to get off the registry. I think what people are hoping is that the legislature comes in and says, ‘We understand particularly with the people who are retroactively added that this raises concerns and questions about due process.’ And so the ball is in the court of legislators now to decide, as they kind of pondered this past year, whether that’s something that they’re willing to do. And so that’s kind of an avenue that I think Aaron and others are trying to exhaust at the moment, understanding that Connecticut registry, it’s pretty clear cut and, you know, on the public registry, there are very few and limited exceptions for people who are convicted of sex offenses. There are very few options for reprieve.

WSHU: And so what happened to the bill that was introduced in the last session?

JE: This was almost like a movie, watching this bill, kind of proceed through the legislature. This is something that stood out to me particularly, because when you’re at the committee level, the Judiciary Committee, which is one of the biggest committees, you know, 37 legislators, if I’m not mistaken, seem sympathetic to what’s going on here. As folks are coming to testify, including Aaron, and others. So it passes through the Judiciary Committee, it passes through the Senate overwhelmingly, yeah. 34 to 3, which at least indicates that the vast majority of the committee is at least willing to continue to talk about this thing and figure out if there’s something that they can do. It gets to the Senate, passes through the Senate 24 to 12, mostly along with bipartisan lines with a few exceptions. And then it gets to the House which now has 151 people, and is more diverse, way more people.

People are being introduced to these bills, oftentimes for the first time when it reaches the floor. And so I think what you saw was that it’s a bill pertaining to the sex offender registry that kind of scared a bunch of people, quite frankly, and that was reflected in the debate. And so I think, as it kind of progressed, the debate got kind of heated. There were people, particularly Rep. Tammy Nuccio, who was the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, raised concerns about kind of the most egregious versions of sex offenses and what it would mean to take roughly 800 or 900 people off the registry without some sort of formalized review process. And so again, there’s just a lot of information out there, some of it, which wasn’t necessarily rooted in what the data and what the facts say. But nonetheless, you know, emotion kind of took over. And so they decided to pull the bill and after that, it never made it back. And that was the end.

WSHU: So what does the data say? What do researchers say about repeat offenses by people on the sex offender registry?

JE: I think you have now, at the time when a lot of rulings were made early on in early 2000s, as it pertains to the sex offender registry, there was a much different place than where we are now. Now having 25 years of the existence of the public registry and data, recidivism data that kind of is associated with it. I think what I’ve seen in my reporting, and in talking with the experts is that data shows that over 25 years, the registry in and of itself has little to no effect on reoffending recidivism, etc. And I think you also see very low recidivism rates again, as time progresses. So the longer that someone does not reoffend, the less of a risk that they are.

And we’ve seen that in Connecticut, in a study from the Office of Policy and Management, I think it might have been published somewhere in early 2010. So around 2012 or so they basically took a study and looked at a sample size of people who were released from prison, some roughly 700 or so people who were released in 2005. And within the five-year period, only 20 of those people have been rearrested and convicted on a new sex-related charge. And so what you’re seeing, again, it’s just very low recidivism rates. The recidivism isn’t, you know, it’s less so in some cases, than people who are convicted on non-related sex crimes. And so again, I think what you see is a group of people who are particularly homogenized. And I think some of the experts have alluded to that homogenized are misunderstood because we’re talking about this very kind of polarizing topic that people get very emotional and passionate about for various reasons.

WSHU: And you mentioned that some researchers say that race might play a factor in this, like many of the laws that were passed in the 1990s.

JE: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, to me, this is a very fascinating part of it, right? Because I think when you think about the sex offender registry in our society, right, maybe perhaps you have an image of what’s been kind of talked about as a stereotypical person behind the bushes, who’s out to get your child and what you find is that’s not necessarily the case. That is a very slim majority of people. And the people who are disproportionately affected by the registry are overwhelmingly people of color, particularly people like Aaron Kearney, who in Connecticut make up roughly a quarter of people on the registry, despite only making up 13% of the state’s population. And so just like you see in other areas of criminal justice, there is the kind of disproportionate effect that these policies have had over the last 25 years.

WSHU: And so where do we stand now? It didn’t make it this year. What are the advocates doing? What are the plans for the future? They want to reintroduce the bill next year? And how do you get over convincing members of the legislature that this is a good thing to do?

JE: Yeah, I think there are a few things that folks are considering. I think you have to factor in that this is an election year. So election year, politics, Trump, everything else, right, as it pertains to people’s reputations, and what they want to support. And people are very conscious of those things. And so I think that’s kind of where the advocates are now, just trying to figure out, ‘Okay, what’s the best strategy? Do we take a gap year, and we come back the year after that? Or do we just continue to kind of raise awareness about this thing.’ It got overwhelming bipartisan support, I should say, very powerful kind of Republicans in the legislature, who backed it, and nothing when it got to the House, again, just folks not having enough information about what the bill was trying to accomplish, really curtailing, you know, the effort.

So, as Rep. Steve Stafstrom said, I spoke with him about this. And you know, he’s the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee. And so he talked about when you don’t have some sort of public awareness campaign, people find it easier to vote no, rather than understanding the nuances. And so, that kind of comes into play here. So I think, you know, as we see with a number of criminal justice bills, I’m sure it’ll be back right. I’m sure it’ll be back. It’s just a matter of when, and what’s the strategy this time around to kind of get more people educated about what you’re trying to accomplish.

Long Story Short takes you behind the scenes at the home of public policy journalism in Connecticut. Each week WSHU’s Ebong Udoma joins us to rundown the Sunday Feature with our reporters. We also present specials on CT Mirror’s big investigative pieces.